A Most Disappointing Cinematic Experience – Grand Theft Auto IV

Forgive me, if you will, but I would like to change genres for a second to share with you my most disappointing recent cinematic experience.  And no, I’m not talking about any of this summer’s super hyped movies (which have been pretty good from what I’ve seen thus far).  Instead, I’m talking about one of the most highly rated, best selling video games of all time, Grand Theft Auto IV.

First of all, I have to admit to being spoiled by the GTA series overall.  San Andreas was better than Vice City which was better than GTA III.  San Andreas may be the one of the best video games period.

Still, unlike movies that constantly disappoint with sequels, one expects video games to get better with every iteration.  At least not go backwards.  Here are just some of the places where GTA IV represents a downgrade from San Andreas: (1) no RPG elements for your character, meaning that you can no longer improve his shooting, driving, or physical condition; (2) the setting, while intricately detailed overall, is boring and repetitive from the street level and exists without the variety of San Andreas; (3) not as many side activities such as gambling; (4) the characters and storyline are far less compelling; (5) no more businesses or real estate which means you make all of this money basically to buy weapons; (6) while you can restart missions right away, there are no longer any checkpoints meaning you have to do a lot of boring, long drives just to get to the mission over and over; (7) the new wanted level system where you have to outrun the cops is a pain in the butt; and, (8) the vehicles are harder to control.

That last one is especially important since a significant portion of this version of GTA is on the road.  This is most glaring with motorcycles.  In GTA San Andreas, motorcycles are the best vehicles, easiest to shoot off of, and great in any situation.  In GTA IV, all drive by shooting is nearly pointless and the motorcycles are death traps that you can no longer control at high speeds.  Realistic, sure.  Less fun, absolutely.

My biggest beef with GTA IV, however deals with the ending.  While the game has been out for several years, I feel compelled to issue a:

<<<Spoiler Alert>>>

GTA IV gives you two choices at the end.  Either your girlfriend leaves you and your best friend dies, or your girlfriend dies.  Either way your character ends the game miserable and alone.  Certainly the game is making a point about the callousness of violence and the emptiness of revenge, and some would applaud its cinematic aspirations.  I do not.

First of all, it’s a video game.  Forgive me if I want to save the Princess from Donkey Kong or Bowser or Gannondorf or whomever has kidnapped her.  I just spent the last 30 damn hours playing this thing and all I ask is for a satisfying ending.  If I want real world themes and anti-climax I would have spent the last 30 hours reading “War and Peace” or “Return of the Native.”

It’s bad enough your girlfriend spends all of her time moralizing and telling you how you shouldn’t be a criminal anymore.  And that’s all well and good – for the real world.  The GTA universe is a horrifying world where actions like mowing over pedestrians on the sidewalk (to say nothing of picking up prostitutes, killing them, and taking your money back) have no consequences.  Machine gun toting maniacs are everywhere, the government corrupt beyond the wildest dreams of only the most off kilter conspiracy theorists, and people can just mow you down on the sidewalk and nothing happens to them.  In this universe, if you aren’t a criminal there is something seriously wrong with you. Anyway all I ask is that my character saves the day and ends up with the girl at the end.

And that brings me to my final point – where does GTA get off moralizing the consequences of violence and the emptiness of vengeance?  It’s not a friggin’ Ibsen play.  I just spent the last 30 hours of my life enacting car chasing and mowing down criminals with machine guns and bazookas.  In fact, the designers of the game created it that way – why are they now trying to make me feel bad about it?  And in what universe, besides maybe the inherently twisted one they’ve created, do they get off moralizing?  Did I mention that in the game you can pick up prostitutes, shoot them, and take your money back with no consequences?  And the creators of THAT universe are getting preachy?

And I’m done.  The next post will be movie related, I promise.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) (1945)

Children of Paradise

Directed by Marcel Carne (1945, France)

“Jealousy belongs to all when a woman belongs to none.”

Children of Paradise ranks with Beauty and the Beast (1946) and The Rules of the Game (1939) as a contender for the finest French film from the first half of the Twentieth Century.  As good as the film is, the story of its production is more compelling that the film itself.  Shot in France for 18 months between 1944 and 1945, the production had to deal with moving the entire set between Paris and Nice, collaborators and spies imbedded by the Nazis, a Jewish set designer and a Jewish composer working in secret, and the logistics of acting as a cover for French Resistance fighters.  Overall it is remarkable that this film exists at all.  Since its premiere in Paris shortly after the liberation of France by Allied forces, it is said that it is playing somewhere in Paris every day of the year.

Children of Paradise, at its base, is a story about four men who are obsessed with one woman.  The backdrop is the Paris theater and carnival scene circa 1820-1830.  The four men, the idealistic yet selfish mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), the dangerous yet honorable criminal Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the flamboyant yet kind actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur), and the staid yet remorseless Count de Montray (Louis Salou) are based on historical figures from that era. However, the actors who play them use the historical template to create enduring archetypes that one can still see in films today.

The object of their pursuit, Garance, played by French screen legend Arletty, drives all of these men into borderline madness, and each of the men has a different reaction to those feelings.  Frederick at least uses his jealously to take his acting to new heights, while the other three men are driven to murder and betrayal.  While the melodrama may be a bit of a hurdle to modern viewers, the story is still alluring and bizarrely beautiful.

As one of the pinnacles of the pre-New Wave French style of filmmaking known as Poetic Realism, one can see how Children of Paradise could have inspired the men like Godard and Truffaut to take French film in a new and groundbreaking direction.  Children of Paradise, despite its penchant for melodrama and its staged, theatrical scenes, is one of the pinnacles of Poetic Realism.  Add to this the fact that it was created under seemingly impossible circumstances, and it stands astride pre-New Wave French cinema as a colossus.  Where else could French cinema go after Children of Paradise, if not to someplace entirely different?

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

 

Brave (2012) and Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Brave (2012)

Directed by: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, & Steve Purcell (USA)

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Directed by: Colin Trevorrow (USA)

We have two great desires that we can never achieve – to change the past and to guarantee the future.  But what if you had the opportunity to do one or the other?

Two of this summer’s films address these dilemmas.  The films couldn’t have less in common otherwise, so it probably makes sense to address them one at a time.

Brave (2012) is Pixar’s latest offering. As a movie, it is certainly on par with The Incredibles (2004) and Cars (2006), but not quite as good as Pixar’s best (Toy Story 1-3 (1995, 1999, 2010), Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008), Up (2009)).  The plot centers around the impending arranged marriage of a Scottish princess, Merida (Kelly MacDonald).  Merida, who wishes nothing more than to avoid this fate, chances upon a forest dwelling witch (Julie Walters).  The witch gives Merida a spell which would stop the marriage, but the unintended consequences of said spell are shocking and horrifying (well maybe not horrifying, this is Pixar after all).

Much like the characters in W. W. Jacobs’ classic short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” Merida doesn’t consider the full scope of the consequences of using dark magic to try and change her fate.  While her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) is stubborn, she is not entirely unreasonable. It is possible that Merida could have reasoned with her to avoid the marriage instead of trusting her fate to a random witch in the forest.

In Safety Not Guarenteed (2012), a team of reporters (Aubrey Plaza, Jake M. Johnson, & Karan Soni) tracks down a loner named Kenneth who claims to be building a time machine (Mark Duplass).  While one of the reporters tries to re-ignite a long lost romance (Johnson’s character, Jeff), Plaza’s character, Darius, befriends the loner.  The movie could go one of two ways, either Kenneth is mentally ill or a genius, and I’m not going to give away the ending.  His efforts to create a time machine, however, are nicely woven into a film where the two other protagonists are either trying to re-live their past or, in Darius’ case, emotionally damaged by it.

As anyone knows from the Back to the Future films (1985, 1989, 1990), time travel is not something to be taken on lightly.  While Darius may want to change her past, she risks unleashing unintended and dangerous consequences (she is warned of this by Kenneth and “trained” to handle it).  As this and Jeff’s brief foray into his past romance seems to suggest, it may not be all fun and games even if Kenneth is legitimately a genius building a time machine and not just some nut.

In the end, changing the past or guaranteeing the future is folly.  If you want to spend your $10 of summer movie money wisely though, either of these films are worth escaping the heat wave for.  Then you can think about some of their overarching themes afterwards over some cold drinks at the beach.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

1983, United States, Director: Richard Marquand

Return of the Jedi may be one of the most hotly debated Star Wars films.  While it is far, far better than any of the prequels, many critics find it to be the weakest of the original trilogy.  Many fans, on the other hand, consider it the best of the original trilogy. So why the hate from critics? One word: Ewoks.

Before the numerous creative and storytelling errors of the Star Wars prequel trilogy came into being, the scene from the original trilogy that most angered Star Wars fans was the scene from Return of the Jedi where the Ewoks appear to defeat “an entire legion” of the Empire’s “best troops.”  At first glance, the scene is far fetched even for a science fiction/fantasy movie.  Little creatures that look like teddy bears defeat armored soldiers wielding energy weapons?  Seriously?  However if one were to take a moment to think about the sequence of events leading up to the Ewok attack and the events of the attack itself, it begins to become more plausible.  Here’s why:

1.  It’s not an “entire legion of my best troops.”

When the rebels first come to the Imperial Base, Han nervously points out that he and Chewie got into more heavily guarded places.  In the series, Han only gets nervous when he knows he’s wrong.  Also, in an earlier scene we see an AT-AT outside of the base.  The Base therefore is clearly heavily guarded.  However, the Ewoks shows the Rebels a back door that they didn’t previously know about and probably weren’t supposed to know about.  The Empire therefore has to scramble to a certain extent to defend that position, having expected a more direct assault.  The stronger troops probably did not have time, therefore, to swing around to the back door of the Base, which is clearly far away from the main structure.  Which leads me to:

2. The Ewoks have the element of surprise

When Han and the Rebels are caught red-handed, we see four AT-ST walkers (far weaker than AT-AT’s) and maybe two dozen troops.  This is by no means an overwhelming force.  Furthermore, the troops guarding the main base probably sat on their hands upon word that the Rebels had been captured.  In other words, the Empire was caught by surprise with a small force with its reinforcements in a state of unreadiness pretty far away.

3.  The Ewoks have the element of confusion

There are easily three or four times as many Ewoks as stormtroopers.  This is evidenced by both their numbers on the screen and how quickly they bring in various heavy weapons to the battle. Added to this, they are well camouflaged and have knowledge of the area.   This creates confusion among the Imperials as to how many Ewoks there are and where they are.

4. The confusion and surprise allows Chewie the opportunity to commandeer an AT-ST

After a few minutes, the Ewoks are clearly losing.  But the surprise and confusion allows Chewie to steal an AT-ST, swinging the battle back to the Rebels.  Some of the Ewoks are also shown having commandeered stormtrooper weapons, which probably help quite a bit as well.

5. The Ewoks are clearly stronger than they look

The Ewoks look cute and cuddly.  However, they are about the size and build of the North American Black Bear.  It is feasible, therefore, that the Ewoks are significantly stronger than the stormtroopers, and as indicated before, there are swarms of them.

In conclusion, the Ewoks have knowledge of the area, superior numbers, physical strength, and an enemy caught by surprise and out of position.  By the time the small force is defeated, the destruction of the back door of the base has caused a chain reaction destroying the entire base and shield generator (the “entire legion” of the Empire’s “best troops” along with it).  Fortunately for the Rebels, the Empire has a habit of leaving tactically critical, supposedly unreachable, areas relatively undefended (see Death Star, First).  While it clearly isn’t the most likely of scenarios, the fact of the matter is that the Ewoks use numerous tactical advantages to make up for their lack of firepower making the scene more plausible than it appears at first glance.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

A Formula for Re-Watchability

Recently, I watched Varsity Blues (1999) for the first time in several years.   As is common with movies that I enjoyed in high school and college, I found the movie silly, unintentionally funny in parts, and worthy of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

Of course, our tastes change as we age.  Few adults enjoy all of the same things we enjoyed when we were younger, and many of us have developed an appreciation for things that we didn’t quite understand earlier in our lives.  For example, a child’s first reaction to a sip of coffee is often revulsion, but many of those same children grow up to become the type of crunchy folk that frequent coffee houses in the Pacific Northwest.  This much is obvious.

But why has a movie that I counted as a favorite a decade ago, one of the first movies that I ever bought on DVD, aged so gracelessly?  Certainly the movie is cliched and an easy target of parody, but this was as true the day it came out as it is today.  Furthermore, there are a few similar movies that I know are equally as bad or worse that I still enjoy as movies and not as objects of ridicule.  National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002) comes to mind as an example.

Here’s what I think.  There’s a re-watchability formula.  Let’s say a movie has to have at least the same nostalgic value as a movie you enjoyed watching at 3:00 am in college or in some other fondly remembered situation (Van Wilder for me).  Your present opinion of it has to be at least the same as a solid movie that you just saw (no nostalgic value) that you enjoyed but wouldn’t call your favorite movie by any means (The Hunger Games (2012) for me).

Now nostalgia points are worth half of present opinion points.  So I would give Van Wilder 5/5 for nostalgia and 2/10 for quality.  I would give The Hunger Games 7/10 for quality and 0/5 for nostalgia.  Therefore, a movie has to rate at least at 7 combined score or it’s in “let’s make fun of it” territory rather than “let’s watch it” territory.  Here is a chart with ten movies that I loved ten years ago:

There you go, if it’s at or above the green line it’s re-watchable as a movie.  If it’s below the green line prepare to make fun of it.  Feel free to play around with this concept!

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Evil Robots!!!

More often than not, the robot comes to us in the movies as a villain.   However, an examination of these so called evil robots reveals that the evil robots are not always as evil as they appear. Take for instance, five movie robots, starting at the beginning with Fritz Lang’s “Maschinenmensch” or “Machine Man” from 1927’s Metropolis.

 

As background, the Machine Man was developed by the mad scientist Rotwang as tool of revenge.  Rotwang uses it to incite violence and chaos.  While the Machine Man is clearly used for evil purposes, it could be argued that if it were programmed not to obey a mad scientist but rather to, say, help old ladies cross the street, we wouldn’t think of it as an evil robot.  Clearly that would make for a very boring movie.  Let’s move on.

 

Certainly HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) qualifies as an evil robot – right?  It’s even listed in AFI’s ‘100 years” series as one of the top villains in movie history.  But is HAL really evil?  In order to complete its mission, to trace the signal being projected by the Monolith, it decides to eliminate all obstacles (in this case the humans).  But is HAL’s mission and the resulting evolutionary progress for mankind worth the lives of the two cranky astronauts?  If you argue yes, than HAL is not evil at all.  Machiavellian perhaps, but not evil.

 

Certainly the Machines from the Matrix (1999) are evil right?  After all they enslave humanity to either a lifetime of being plugged into a video game or eating gruel and fighting the machines in an endless war.  But this line of thought conveniently forgets that the humans built the machines to enslave them, and then tried to destroy them all with nuclear weapons (forgetting, apparently, that nuclear weapons would destroy everything else too).  Also, it appears all life on Earth has been obliterated except for the humans, so the machines and their massive game are the only things keeping the humans alive.

 

Certainly Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is evil right?  After all he tries to destroy humanity.  And just look at him in the poster!  He’s kidnapping a scantily clad woman!  How evil is that?!? That’s a very human-centric way of thinking about it though.  Apparently the other civilizations in the galaxy don’t like our penchant for violent conflict and want to preemptively take us out a potential threat.  Unfair, perhaps, but to them, not especially evil.

 

Finally!  Megatron (Transformers (2007)) is definitely evil!  It’s actually pretty hard to argue against this, partly because Michael Bay’s “films” have about as much subtlety as a jackhammer.

Anyway that’s enough evil robots for today!

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

The Essentials

Sometimes I get asked for movie recommendations.  I like to take that one step further – in my opinion there are ten films that are essential to understanding the development of the modern movie, from Oscars contenders to summer blockbusters to independent and foreign films.  In order of date, here goes:

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Russia, Director: Sergei Eisenstein)

For much of the first half of the twentieth century, Battleship Potemkin was consistently ranked in surveys as the “greatest film of all time.”  It wasn’t the first propaganda film or the first film to use montages to tell its story.  But it was the first combine these techniques effectively to influence audiences.  It is an important film to see because if you understand its elements and its techniques you will know when the filmmaker is trying to manipulate you.

Metropolis (1927, Germany, Director: Fritz Lang)

It was difficult to imagine how Metropolis’ reputation could be enhanced until a nearly complete reel of the film was discovered a few years ago.  The nearly complete version, once thought lost forever, cements Metropolis as not only the first great science fiction film but also the first film to resemble modern Hollywood blockbusters.  It is debatable, but with Metropolis the first era of film-making may have reached its full potential.

Citizen Kane (1941, US, Director: Orson Welles)

While viewing the Venus de Milo in Paris, I learned that it isn’t considered a masterpiece merely because of its form and detail, but because it was sculpted hundreds of years before those techniques were thought to be invented.  Citizen Kane is similar in that it is the first film to embrace the sense of realism that we take for granted in every film we see today, and it was not widely seen until years after it was first released.  The list of innovations that Orson Welles introduced in the film is summarized by Roger Ebert in a 2004 article entitled “A Viewer’s Companion to Citizen Kane” ((c) 2004 rogerebert.com).

Bicycle Thieves (1948, Italy, Director: Vittorio De Sica)

Italian Neorealism is possibly the most influential movement in the history of cinema.  Simply put, films such as Bicycle Thieves present fictional stories in a way that makes them feel like documentaries.  De Sica’s masterpiece was the first film of the movement to earn widespread international acclaim, and it went on to influence dozens of realism movements in other countries.

Rashomon (1950, Japan, Director: Akira Kurosawa)

“They say that even the demon who dwelt here at Rashomon fled in fear of the ferocity of man.”  Rashomon was the first of Kurosawa’s films to become popular outside of his native Japan.  It is most notable for Kurosawa’s fragmented, unresolved story and his use of natural effects to establish mood and move the story along.  While almost any Kurosawa film could be considered essential viewing, Rashomon is one of his shorter films and a good place to start exploring his catalog.

Pather Panchali (1955, India, Director: Satyajit Ray)

In the first film of Ray’s Apu Trilogy, Ray takes realism to its logical conclusion.  There is very little “plot” in Pather Panchali, instead the viewer is pulled along by authentic emotion and unforgettable images.  Its importance stems from the fact that it was one of the first films to come out of the developing world that rose to international acclaim, and by doing so inspired filmmakers across the world.

Psycho (1960, US, Director: Alfred Hitchcock)

The more movies people see, the more they think they know what to expect.  The brilliance of Psycho comes from its defying of audience expectations in a visceral and horrifying manner.  While it could be said that Hitchcock wrote many of the rules for plot development in Hollywood films, Psycho broke through those conventions so completely that it changed our perception of what movies could get away with.

Breathless (1960, France, Director: Jean Luc Godard)

Much has been written about the French New Wave and the film regarded by some as “the French Citizen Kane.”  After all, the conventional film had been done so well, and with such compelling back-story with 1945’s Children of Paradise that its young filmmakers were left with really no place to go except to invent an entirely new style of film.  Simply put, the French New Wave is why shots are shorter and movies are faster paced than they used to be, and Breathless is the film that started it all.

Persona (1966, Sweden, Director: Ingmar Bergman)

Bergman once said that he put all of his skills as a filmmaker to work in Persona, and the result is one of the most powerful and thought provoking films ever made.  If you describe what Persona is about based on the plot alone, it may be difficult to get someone interested in seeing the film.  After all, there are only two characters in most of the film, one of which barely speaks.  However, the film isn’t about these characters, but the dark recesses of our own minds.  Persona isn’t a film so much as it a mirror.

The Godfather (1972, US, Director: Francis Ford Coppola)

While Citizen Kane is the most important American film, The Godfather is the best constructed.  The writing, acting, production, cinematography, directing, and every other element of the film is so well done that only the most nit-picky of critics can find weaknesses.   This is what a film looks like when all of its elements are firing on all cylinders, and it is a good a place as any to bring our list to a close.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

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